King's 'promissory note' remains in default

Martin Luther King Jr.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. waved to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago today in Washington.
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

At least part of the "promissory note" that Martin Luther King Jr. invoked in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech remains in default, say two professors interviewed on the anniversary of the speech.

From the transcript of King's speech:

In a sense, we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

"The march was about petitioning the government to do something about jobs and access to jobs and discrimination to keep people out of certain jobs, and also freedom in terms of public accommodations and such," said Howard University's Michael Fauntroy in a conversation with Kerri Miller on The Daily Circuit.

"Unfortunately, that has gotten lost. But when you fast-forward to today, many of the same concerns about jobs and economics exist. And while we've done some good things with regard to the freedom part of that, there are still some debts that need to be settled."

Added Nekima Levy-Pounds, of the University of St. Thomas: "Dr. King understood that without economic justice, the people would continue to suffer ... He talked about the slums and ghettos of our northern cities.

"So often, when we have this conversation we focus on the terrible conditions that blacks endured in the South while really ignoring the challenges that they faced in the North in terms of being able to have access to equal opportunity, access to gainful employment and jobs that actually paid a living wage. Access to affordable housing. So Dr. King could perceive that these challenges would continue to hinder our progress in the future unless we took some immediate action to remedy the situation."

That's a list, noted Miller, that "actually could be taken right out of a debate today."

"Absolutely," agreed Levy-Pounds.

Fauntroy concurred that the economic agenda that concerned King "hasn't changed that much. When you mention minimum wage, it should be noted that the current minimum wage, when adjusted for inflation, is less than it was in 1963. ... And the elephant in the room, there's also this fundamental structural impediment called discrimination," he said.

For example, "When it comes to the unemployment rate, white high school dropouts have a lower one than African-Americans who have attended college. Not necessarily college graduates, but those who have some college," he said. "As much as things have changed, and many of them certainly have, some things stay the same."


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